The crisis moment in our collective history, the year zero through which our past and our present must always travel, is 1847.
Now Quinnipiac University in Hamden Connecticut is set to unveil the first Great Hunger museum which shows the history of that terrible era through art and artifacts.
The legacy of Black 47, as it came to be called, is still being felt in myriad of ways in Irish society and culture and its shadow has played out in our history in ways that we are still only beginning to apprehend.
Growing up in the Bronx, Quinnipiac University President Dr. John Lahey, 65, first heard about the Irish Famine the way most people still do in the United States – by word of mouth. As a boy in the Irish section of Riverdale, he was told that the Irish had been lazy and foolish to have allowed themselves to become so dependent on one crop, the potato.
What he didn’t know at the time was that this version of events was nonsense. The truth was that there were plenty of crops and alternative food supplies in Ireland during the famine, and that it was the economic policies of the ruling British government of the period that led to the mass starvations.
When he was invited to become grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City in 1997, Lahey took the opportunity to research the famine in detail. What he discovered changed his life and his whole outlook on Irish history.
“My awakening with respect to Ireland’s Great Hunger came in 1996 when I read Christine Kinealy’s This Great Calamity,” he tells the Irish Voice.
“I grew up in Riverdale. My father’s father was born in Ireland and left as a kid. Growing up I heard references to the potato famine as it was called back then. But my family didn’t talk about it other than in vague ways as a dark period in Ireland’s history.”
The famine was the reason why there were so many Irish in America, he discovered. But in his home it wasn’t spoken of at all.
“I had the sense that Irish Americans were embarrassed by it. They had possibly internalized some guilt associated with it. It was not until I read Kinealy’s book that I began to engage,” Lahey recalls.
“Coincidentally around the same time, I was approached by the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee to be grand marshal in 1997. That was also the 150th anniversary of the famine. By that time the Irish government and Irish Americans here were finally starting to acknowledge the tragedy, it’s causes and consequences, and memorials were being commissioned and new historical studies were being released.”
The time was finally right, so Lahey set about researching the calamity. What he discovered was that Anglo Irish historians had written the story of the Great Hunger in its immediate aftermath and they had decided where to pin the blame. In the process they played down their own responsibility and vowed they’d done all they could to alleviate the suffering.
“Well, it turns out that the Anglo Irish quite consciously took advantage of the crisis to enact land reform and to tighten their grip on Ireland. The takeaway for me from Christine’s book was that I had a greater sense of the consequences and the magnitude of what had happened in Ireland,” Lahey says.
“This was an avoidable tragedy. More than one million people didn’t have to die; two million didn’t have to emigrate.”
What Lahey discovered was that there had been a potato crop failure. The Irish were certainly dependent on the crop, but the root causes of their dependency went further back to the Cromwellian period and their forcible removal from land in the northeast in particular.
By 1852 the Irish population was cut in half; by 1900 they were cut in three quarters. During the famine the British government never closed the ports or reduced the tariffs.
Instead they shipped out food that could have saved the starving. They used none of the resources of the then wealthiest nation on earth to come to Ireland’s aid.
“When I was asked to be grand marshal I discovered that most of the previous ones had been born in Ireland and had talked about their times there. I guess it was the combination of the educator in me and the fact that I was second generation Irish that I decided to make the theme of that year’s parade the Great Hunger,” Lahey recalls.
The easiest thing about being grand marshal, Lahey says, is leading the parade up Fifth Avenue. The more challenging task was that every Irish organization in New York from January 1 onward wanted him to come to their dinner dance all the way to March 17.
“I attended about 40 or so to talk about the Great Hunger. Then for the first time ever at noon we stopped the parade for a minute’s silence to commemorate those lives impacted,” Lahey says.
The famine held back Ireland for 150 years, Lahey says. The country made little progress from the Great Hunger and the agrarian undeveloped country it was. It missed almost the entire Industrial Revolution. It really didn’t begin to emerge as a growing country with a growing economy until the 1980s and ‘90s with the electronic age.
“The effect on Ireland was not just the Great Hunger years from 1845 to 1852. Thereafter anyone with ambition and talent knew they had to leave to achieve their goals,” Lahey says.
“There was a psychological aspect to it too. I think the Irish internalized the experience. Many of them accepted the narrative the British government told them -- they were lazy, they reproduced too much, they drank, and they were irresponsible. I had no idea of the true magnitude of the famine, how it set back the country’s growth in all areas.”
With the new museum at Quinnipiac his ambition is clear.
“I hope to educate people about the high quality of Irish art. I strongly think the Irish haven’t been given their due in the field of the visual arts. They have in theater, literature, and music, but they also had some great artists in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Lahey feels.
Principled truth tellers aren’t always welcomed with open arms anywhere, especially if they have come to tell hard truths which the famine museum necessitates. The Irish have always known this, and the British have always monitored our statements for centuries.
“When I was announced as grand marshal in December 1996 the ambassador from London took a few shots at me, saying that I was trying to rewrite history,” Lahey reveals.
“Parade officials also had some discussions with me to ask if we really wanted the Great Hunger to be the theme of the parade, since it was controversial. But they got on board quickly.”
Lahey had terrific support along the way, he adds. “The real vision and drive behind this museum, I’m delighted to say, comes from the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland,” Lahey reveals.
Murray Lender, chairman of Quinnipiac’s Board of Trustees (who sadly passed away in March) heard Lahey give talks on the Great Hunger while he was grand marshal, and told Lahey he wanted to give the university a gift to provide a special room in the library at Quinnipiac dedicated to the Great Hunger.
“He told me, ‘I grew up in New Haven and I had a lot of Irish friends and I never heard a word about the famine.’ He was very forceful about saying it needed to be told and he underwrote it.”
The famine was an avoidable tragedy, Lahey concludes. The potato crop failure was not the fault of the British government and there would have been some deaths from it. But it didn’t have to become a great calamity.
The new museum will record that underline and commemorate it.
“A lot of Irish and Irish American artists and supporters helped to make this day possible, but without the support of a son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who saw parallels in our experience we wouldn’t be there on Friday to dedicate this new facility. That’s a proof of how important this story is to all immigrants,” Lahey says.